20th-24th December, 2012, Shiraz and Persepolis
I am a giraffe in Iran. I walk the streets with my long neck, swaying in the breeze. People stop and gape. “Where from? Where from?” They’ve never seen a giraffe before, not even on television. Trouble is, being an exotic animal is starting to grind me down.
They say Shiraz is the most beautiful city in Iran. To me, it’s just a regular Iranian city, albeit with more trees, a bit less traffic pollution and more historical monuments. Ornamental orange trees decorate the avenues. There’s a giant adobe castle in the centre of the city.
The Long Night of Boredom
It’s the end of December 20th and so far the world has shown no sign of impending explosion, implosion or anything else. I kind of wish it would. The woman sits by the bonfire, waffling on and on, apparently about Zoroastrianism. She has been speaking in Farsi for hours already and there’s no sign, so far, that she will ever end, let alone the rest of the world. The man sitting next to me, my host – so far the only person who’s spoken to me – seems equally as bored. Tonight is Yalda Night: the longest night of the year. It’s traditional to celebrate this night by staying awake ’til dawn. I doubt I’ll make it to midnight.
When I was told of a party in a private garden in Shiraz, visions of liberal Iranians sitting around sipping shiraz wine came to mind. This was based not only on wishful thinking, but also on information imparted by a friend from Shiraz, who told me that people here still make the wine secretly, despite it’s prohibition. No such luck. Every woman in the private, walled garden is still wearing her hijab. Wine would be unthinkable.
During the next twelve hours, another three people attempt to begin a conversation with me, each beginning with the words “what is your idea about..?” I’m asked for my idea about Persepolis (I don’t have one), Stonehenge (it’s a big clock), “our land” (presumably meaning Iran), Allah (tried to avoid answering that one) and Iranian people – to which I respond that here, like everywhere, there are some very nice people and some total bastards, but mostly people are somewhere in-between – a complex mixture of life-experiences, thoughts and emotions, neither ‘good’, nor ‘bad’. It’s not a popular answer.
As the night wears on, my temper shortens. There is one woman with a light shining out of her eyes, but barely a word of English. She struggles to ask which city I’m from. Her husband sneers at her and says something in Persian. “What did he say?” I ask the man standing next to me. “He told her this is not important.” I spend the next half an hour communicating with the woman in a series of gestures and smiles. We share a big hug when we finally leave. After almost 24 hours in that garden, I feel like I’m getting out of prison.
The End of the World
Ali is my new host. He lives alone in the centre of Shiraz. It’s very uncommon in Iran for an unmarried guy in his thirties to live alone. We have some friends in common and are both members of the hitchhiking group on a certain hospitality exchange website, so we have plenty to talk about. Conversation swings to the End of the World which, according to popular interpretations, has been predicted by the ancient Mayans to occur at some point on this very eve. Back in Europe, it’s mostly hippies, conspiracy theorists, and other eccentric types who are into this prophecy, however, in Iran it seems to have made it to the mainstream. Several times during my travels I’ve been asked what people in the West are saying about the End of the World. Not much, actually.
If it were really the end of the world, I’d quite like a drink. I mention this to Ali, who promptly grabs a bottle of vodka from the cupboard. This, I was not expecting. We drink into the wee hours, Ali becoming increasingly flirtatious. “Why you are not drunk?” he slurs. “I am,” I tell him, I’m just more used to it than you are. I hear him being sick in the toilet before stumbling off to bed.
Milad is a fun and quirky young couchsurfer who’s passionate about hitchhiking. I contact him through that same inevitable hospitality exchange website and we decide to hitchhike together to Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 70km from Shiraz.
It’s my second time hitching in Iran and I’m glad to have Milad with me. It’s obvious to the drivers that he’s a student and his slight clumsiness adds to his charm. Every car that stops agrees to take us for free. I see men’s eyes in front mirrors and avert them, letting Milad answer all the inevitable questions for me. “Inglistan”, he tells them, when they ask where I’m from. We decided to say we met at a hotel. Couchsurfing is more or less illegal in Iran.
Sunshine vanishes as we leave the city. Persepolis leers out of the fog, adding a striking atmosphere to Iran’s oldest pre-Islamic ruins.
The Grey Flat-Cap
I can’t remember which way the coffee shop is, so I ask a man working at a kebab stand close to the Arg of Karim Khan – the 18th century citadel in the city centre. He points me in the direction of Shohada Square. I know it’s not the way, so I thank him and walk on in the direction I think is right, leaving three men staring after me.
I’ve long since begun looking at the ground as I walk, so as not to meet the eyes I know are everywhere, pointing directly at me. Unfortunately, this means I’m completely unaware of the tall fat boy in the grey flat-cap, until he walks alongside me. “Coffee-shop?” he asks. The only way he can know I’m looking for a coffee shop is if he heard me back at the kebab stand ten minutes earlier. “Are you following me?” His forehead draws down into a frown. He doesn’t understand, but I do. I slow my pace. Flat-cap slows down with me and looks impatient. He wants me to hurry up. After a while, he points down a side-street “Coffee-shop!” he tells me. There’s no way it’s down there. I stop and call my first host, the guy who took me there before. He tells me it’s on Hafez Street – I’m on the right road. When I get off the phone, the guy is gone and I continue walking.
I hear footsteps quicken behind me as the fat boy rushes up to me, grabs a handful of my behind and dashes off down a side-street, leaving me yelling after him – “FUCKING BAAASTAAARD!” He must have been tailing me for over half an hour.
Safely inside Farough Cafe, I engross myself in my writing. On looking up, I notice two young women staring at me as though I’m made of sunlight and gold. One of them asks politely if they can speak with me. I can hardly say no. I tell them about the grey flat-cap and they nod sadly. “We have to get used to this”, one of them says. Apparently this kind of thing happens to them all the time.
The reaction of men is worse. “Male company will reduce lots of hazards.” “Better to avoid crowded downtown streets.” They may as well say it’s my fault for being a woman, for being alone, blonde, not covering every bit of my hair – although I cover as much as the average Tehranian woman.
I feel that my time in Iran is coming to an end. I’m bored of the stares, the attention, the endless questions. I’m bored of being a tourist, of covering my hair and staring at the ground when I walk. I hate being a giraffe.
15-20th December, 2012, Yazd
I see the sun rise over the desert as my train chugs into Yazd. The girls in my carriage quickly jump down from their bunks and begin wrapping themselves in headscarves, checking make-up and folding sheets, which an attendant soon comes to collect.
I find the Silk Road Hotel close to the 12th Century Masjid-e Jameh Mosque in the middle of the adobe old city. A sleepy-looking man answers the door. He seems surprised to see me. “Is this the hostel?” I ask. It is. No need to bother with formalities at this hour, it seems. He points me down some steps and hurries back to bed. I tiptoe down to a dark room full of bunk-beds and squint at each in turn, not wanting to climb into bed with someone by accident. I choose a bottom bunk close to the door and doze off, only to be woken after a couple of hours by the person above me tossing and turning. Every move wobbles the entire bed. I begin to feel seasick and whisper up – “excuse me!” The face of a rather beautiful man peers over. “Oh!” he says. “Oh!” I say.
Over breakfast, I learn that Rocco is riding his motorbike from his home in the Netherlands to China. There are other international travellers too, all with interesting journeys ahead of them. I decide to stay a few days and hang out with some fellow wanderers.
If you stuck a drawing pin into the middle of Iran, chances are you’d stick it in Yazd: a three-thousand year old city, built where the Dasht-e Kavir desert meets the Dasht-e Lut. Surprisingly, this city has a tourist office – the first I’ve come across in Iran. It sells books, postcards and some other tourist paraphernalia. The prices are in the official Rials currency, rather than tomans – the usual street method of pricing. It’s another first for my time in Iran.
I’m walking back to the hostel through an adobe maze, when I hear someone call out – “Where are you from?” I groan inwardly. It’s my least favourite question, yet always the most popular. Sometimes I just grit my teeth and answer. Others, the awareness that saying the name of one country does not sum up me, my life or anyone else’s is too much to bear. “England, Scotland, Ireland and Turkey”, I tell him. “Wow!” he replies. We begin walking together.
My new friend is called Ali. As we walk, he tells me a little about himself and it becomes clear that his own identity is equally complex, perhaps in different ways. Born and raised in Mumbai by parents of Persian descent, Ali returned to his ancestral home of Yazd in recent years, to discover that he’s considered a foreigner here, as well as back in India. “Everywhere I am a stranger”, he tells me. Ali takes me on a tour of Yazd, pointing out historical buildings and components of the ancient cooling and water systems, for which the city is renowned. Windcatcher towers known as badgirs sprout around rounded domes of ab anbars, signifying underground water reservoirs – part of a 2,000 year old qanat water system.
Ali takes me to see to see Khan-e-Lari – a historical house and Alexander’s Prison, which is neither a prison, nor built by Alexander. Apparently it served as a school. Those crazy Persians.
Every day in the hostel, people come and go. Mark is also on his way to China, having begun his journey at his home in Switzerland. Like most other travellers I meet, he’s using public transport, but jumps at the chance of a hitchhiking trip to Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian temple out in the desert, 76km from Yazd.
Neither of us has hitched in Iran before, but I’m armed with some tips from friends in Mashad. The trouble is that in Iran, everyone’s a taxi. It’s common and perfectly normal for an unmarked car, driven by someone who isn’t a taxi driver, to stop and collect people from the roadside. It is expected that they should pay for this service, however, some cars will take you for free if you ask. How to arrange this without causing offense and without speaking much Farsi?
My friend Mahyar has suggested saying ‘salavaati?’ to drivers when they stop. I’ve since mentioned this to some other Iranian people, each expressing either delight or horror at the idea. ‘Salavaati’ is a religious word, basically meaning that prayers are offered instead of money. Mahyar, who has used this technique often, claims it’s a lighter, politer way of asking for a free ride, and that people usually see it as a fun joke.
We get a lift to Meybod with a truck driver. He immediately phones his English teacher friend, who promptly invites me to stay at his house. I’m not sure about this, but decide to play along with the Iranian taarof rules of politeness and white lies. I tell him that yes, of course I will come. From this point on, the English teacher will call me several times a week demanding to know when I’m coming to visit him.
After waiting a while in Meybod, a shiny black car pulls over. “Salavaati?” I ask him, feeling faintly stupid. He jumps out and begins speaking in English – “Hello! Where are you from? Where are you going? Yes, I can take you there, come with me!”
We begin explaining to the man, whose name is Mojios, that he really needn’t take us all the way to Chak Chak – wherever he might be heading in our direction will be fine. “No no, it’s not possible.” He bundles us into the car and drives us all the way to the temple.
We leave Chak Chak and speed back through the desert towards Meybod. Seemingly not bored with us yet, Mojios is keen to take us to Narenj Castle, which appears to be a giant sand-castle, but is in fact made of adobe. Mojios claims the castle to be 7,000 years old. Internet sources generally date it from 2,000 – 3,000 years, but either way, it’s pretty impressive.
Next Mojios takes us to see a caravanserai. Unfortunately, it’s closed for business, though we get to have a look around the courtyard and he shows us where the camels would rest. Then he takes us to a pottery workshop, where a seasoned professional is spinning lumps of clay on an old foot-powered potter’s wheel. Mark decides to have a go, but it seems the speed of the wheel is harder to control than it looks. I giggle as clay splatters across the room.
We’ve had a lot of fun with Mojios, but it hasn’t ended yet. He’s decided to drive us back to Yazd, where he wants to visit a friend who owns a coffee-shop. We sip coffee together with Nima, the coffee-shop friend, who also seems delighted to meet us. Mark and I really want to pay for Mojios’ coffee, but of course we fail. It’s always a fight to pay your way in Iran.
Mark leaves town and Trevor arrives. We hang out with Nima and Mojios at the coffee-shop, fail to pay for a tasty dinner and the non-alcoholic beer I’m slowly becoming accustomed to.
Nima tells us someone is following us. It seems we have a government spy. I call Mahyar in a fluster, but he tells me not to worry. Apparently it’s standard practice to tail tourists in this country. “Honestly,” Mahyar tells me, “from everything I know about you, you have nothing to worry about.” Mahyar knows a lot about me, so I begin to relax.
The Tower of Silence used to be far from Yazd, but the city has since grown to envelope it. These Zoroastrian ‘dakhmas’ are man-made towers, where bodies were once left to be picked clean by vultures – a sky burial. It’s sunset when we arrive, the evening light setting off the silence of the place.
I’m walking the streets of the old city with Nikita, a Rainbow hippy from Germany, when I realise something’s missing. My laptop! I run back through the mosque courtyard, down dusty streets, trying to remember which turns we took.
“Wow, you really lost your past!” Nikita laughs, when I realise it has truly gone. I feel anger growing within. He makes me a cup of tea in the hotel near the park where I left it, like a fool, beside the bench where we were sitting. I’m trying to persuade the hotel staff to show me their CCTV footage, to no avail.
If the police were interested in me before, I just gave them the perfect excuse to interrogate me. “How long are you staying in Iran?” asks the cop. “It depends if I get my visa extension when I go to Shiraz”, I tell him. “I am the Minister of Foreign Affairs,” he tells me, “I can extend it for you here in Yazd.”
The following day, I dutifully show up at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s already packed full of people, mostly Afghan asylum seekers. I blush in shame as I’m shuffled past them all to the front of the queue. All eyes follow me. I am disgusted with myself for being so white and privileged, but most of all, I’m disgusted at the Iranian government for being so racist. An hour later, I have a visa extension: another thirty days in Iran.
11-14th December 2012, Qeshm Island
We’re surfing the back of a black Toyota pick-up truck as it skirts the narrow road through the desert. We screech with delight as the wind drags our faces into maniacal grimaces. My hijab flies off my head, but I couldn’t care less. This island seems completely lawless.
The black pick-ups, of which we’ve already hitchhiked three consecutively, are driven by oil smugglers. At night, the island teams with them, their open backs thick with greasy black traces. To save our clothes, we stand and hold tight onto the bar behind the cab. “Shit, I think we passed it!” David yells into the wind. We all tap ferociously on the back of the cab until the driver brakes abruptly and we climb out, buoyed by the adrenaline of the ride.
It was an eight hour bus journey from Kerman, where I left Sarah and the two Mohammeds, to Bandar Abbas on the South Coast of Iran. From there I took a forty minute boat ride into the Strait of Hormuz, which separates the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Sea. Qeshm is one of the largest islands in the world and one of Iran’s Free Trade Zones. According to Wikipedia, about 20% of the world’s petroleum, and about 35% of the petroleum traded by sea, passes through the strait.
David met me at the port in Qeshm a few hours earlier, full of beans and clearly excited at the opportunity to hang out with a female after weeks travelling alone in Iran. This is an attitude I would begin to encounter a lot in the country, whenever I came across solo male travellers. Having already spent a few days on the island, he’s clearly fallen in love with it and has already arranged a full itinerary for our two days together, beginning with a taxi drive 40km across the island to the tiny village of Tabl. Tagging along with us on our adventures, is David’s new sidekick Mehdi. Mehdi grew up in Shiraz, but is now living on the island and working as a diving instructor in the main city.
The event we’re about to gatecrash is the 2nd Qeshm Star Fest, an astronomy festival taking place in the Geopark close to Tabl. The entrance fee is around $60 per person for the three day festival, but David has managed to blag us in as ‘guests’.
David, Mehdi and I find the Star Fest after a few false starts. We’re greeted at the gate and David explains that he met one of the organisers earlier and was invited to attend for free for an evening as a guest. The people on the gate raise an eyebrow at this, but smile and hand out guest badges, after asking us to fill in some forms.
It’s an interesting event. A few marquees and a giant telescope have been set up in the middle of the desert and astronomy lovers from far and wide have flocked together, pitched their their tents and are now huddled in groups, debating the wonders of the galaxy in excited voices. “Wow, star geeks!” I exclaim. I had no idea such a thing existed. David quickly finds an authoritative-looking man who speaks English and begins plowing him with questions – “What exactly is a galaxy?” “What’s the difference between a cosmos and a galaxy?” “How many galaxies are there, exactly?”
We’re staying in a homestay owned by a smiling, yet somewhat serious Mr Amini and a large number of colourfully-dressed women of various ages. I’m guessing some of these women must be Mr Amini’s wives, and others his daughters, but it’s sometimes hard to fathom which might be which.
David, Mehdi and I are sharing a spacious room with guidebooks, pictures of the island and roll-out mattresses. David already stayed with Mr Amini during his first days on the island and remarks on his inability to understand the concept of vegetarianism, despite a careful explanation. Sure enough, our ‘vegetable soup’ seems to contain finely shredded slithers of chicken – Mr Amini’s little way of ensuring we don’t suffer from malnourishment during our stay with him.
David is already sipping tea in the courtyard by the time I emerge from my slumber. He greets me warmly and orders breakfast immediately. A platter is brought out by a young woman dressed in soft blues and oranges, and the table is filled with eggs, jams, cheeses, breads and tea.
First on today’s itinerary is the Hara forest – a mangrove forest, half submerged by water. A bit of later research reveals these to be saltwater trees known internationally as Avicennia marina, and locally as ‘hara’. Trees of these forests can grow up to eight meters and have external roots. The forest is hugely ecologically significant as “environmental studies have shown that about 1.5% of the world’s birds and 25% of Iran’s native birds annually migrate here”.
Our guide is a lanky local whose name slips by me. He has a calm detachedness about him. The other guy in the boat, who shares our fare, is clearly a city-dweller. He grabs at branches, picks at trees and shouts at the birds that perch on slender branches. “Isn’t this a protected area?” David asks me. Mehdi laughs.
Our second stop is the Geopark, which covers an area of over 30,000 acres and makes up a sizeable percentage of the island. Earlier this year, UNESCO dropped Qeshm from it’s list of Global Geoparks. In order to classify as such, a Geopark must meet various aims in terms of conservation, education and geotourism. According to some sources, it could re-enter the Global Geopark Network by March 2014.
This part of the geopark takes the form of monstrous natural sand formations in a vast desert. The Desert has been top on my list of 100 Things to do Before I Die for as long as I can remember. I am enraptured.
David’s ferry is cancelled due to choppy seas. After a bonus evening together, we share a taxi to the airport. He’s bound for Dubai – only a short flight, but worlds away from our quiet desert island.
With David gone, events take a nose-dive. Mehdi invited me to go snorkeling with him, but when I arrive, he tells me “the sea is surfing,” and we can’t go out on the boat. Instead, he offers me a massage. I’m initially reluctant, but he tells me he studied traditional Thai massage while living in Thailand, and after a while I relax into the idea. Mehdi has three other flat-mates, all men. The entire apartment is one medium-sized, open-plan room. The bathroom is basically a cupboard. One lumpy human-sized sleeping-bag is asleep on the floor, but after a while he crawls out, says “Salaam” and disappears off to work.
Now it’s time for the massage. Mehdi gets me to change into my shorts and take my top off, lying on my front. He’s discreet about this and I’m starting to trust him. After some deep massaging into my feet and calves, he’s working quite high up between my legs and I begin to feel extremely uncomfortable. I’m about to tell him to stop, when suddenly he’s lying on top of me, breathing in my ear, saying, “Now I can massage your breasts.” I command him to stop immediately.
“Why? What’s problem? You know in Thailand, full body massage really full body!”
“No way, get off me now!”
“Ok, then just do lip massage.”
“What’s a lip massage?”
“Like French kiss… but not French kiss.”
I tell him “no” sternly, get up and lock myself in the bathroom cupboard to get dressed. When I emerge, Mehdi makes a show of pretending he has no idea what could possibly be the problem. I begin shouting at him that he’s behaving inappropriately and that if he had any decency he would accept it and apologise.
“Ok, I’m sorry, just forget it, ok?”
“Ok, I’m forgetting.”
To break the tension, we leave the flat in search of activity, which in the city is minimal. We meet up with two of the flatmates and another friend, who take me to see some caves and a ‘traditional’ chai house in a mall. We smoke water pipe and the guys speak Farsi together, barely acknowledging my existence. I feel that Mehdi is giving the minimal attention necessary in order to feel like he’s hosting me. After spending two full days together with David, I felt like we were friends. Now I feel like more of a burden.
The sea is still choppy and there are no boats. Without a better option, I stay at Mehdi’s place, laying out my sleeping-bag in line with the flat-mates. They lie in a row and watch the big-screen television all evening.
That night I’m very sick. For a moment, I wonder if somebody could have drugged me, but then it clicks that I’ve been drinking water from the tap. I remember walking around a lush green park close to Mehdi’s diving school the previous night. I commented about how green the grass was for a desert island and asked where the water comes from. The words “de-salinated sea water” reverberate around my head.
After half a night of puking, I feel very weak, but I know I have to get off the island. With Mehdi’s help, I make it to the port and get a boat back to the mainland, hoping for a cancellation on one of the fully-booked trains to Yazd.